Interview: Attica Blues
Date: July 2000
Location: Vibe Bar, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London
Words / interview: Des Berry
Photo: Dan King
2009: Setting the scene:
Summer 2000 and Sony / Columbia Records are about to release the second album from London’s Attica Blues. Its a sunny day when we met and talked in the courtyard outside the Truman Brewery / Vibe Bar down there on Brick Lane. I was there with Dan King who snapped the photos and helped with the chat. Charlie Dark arrived first and that talk of leaving the band was just a joke. Sadly they all left the band when it came to a natural end a year or so later. Charlie and Tony are making music today, but anyway back to ’00.
“Yeah I’m leaving you guys” laughs Charlie Dark, one third of Attica Blues.
We’ve been sitting around waiting on the late arrival of fellow band members Roba El-Essawy and Tony Nwachukwu . The delay has given Charlie the opportunity to fill us in on the groups future plans, as well as his own. Something the others seem unaware of when they join us.
Attica Blues are here. Back again on a new label, feeling good and happy to be away from the constraints of old. The new LP ‘Test, Don’t Test‘ is a mix of jazz, hip hop soul and R&B. Its sound is probably closer to the one they’ve wanted over the years and surprisingly something they could never achieve while on Mo Wax.
“Changing labels has certainly made us more liberated,” Charlie explains, “we’ve been able to just go out and make music rather then been pressured into creating a more radio friendly sound, something that Mo Wax were keen on us doing.”
With Mo Wax the label is always going to be bigger than the artists. Attica Blues were the only real band on a mainly producer led roster and looking for a big hit A&M were keen to hear a more commercial sound.
“We’re a small collective of people used to working together so it does not help when others come in to the mix. But luckily our A&R now is the guy who signed Loose Ends and Soul II Soul“. Someone who is more used to, as Charlie states “against the grain black music”.
“We started working together around ’91/92” Charlie points out, only to be corrected by Roba. All three are very close but Charlie is very much the loudest. Tony’s deeper voice battles with this while Roba is happy to sit back, listen and correct.
“No it was December 1992!” she laughs, “it gets earlier every time we do an interview”. Roba sets the record straight, “Charlie knew James Lavelle and he suggested that he went into the studio. Charlie needed someone to translate his ideas, so he brought in Tony aka The Midi Assassin”.
“Ladies love Tony Tone” Charlie butts in…
“And I went down with a friend of Charlie’s and ended up singing with them”, Roba finishes.
“We all had day jobs back then” Tony points out, “we’d be in the studio throughout the night working on stuff.” Laughing he remembers some of the earlier sessions. “We’d be literally falling asleep at the control desk, trying to EQ the tracks and leaving to go to work absolutely knackered.”
“Yeah I was working at Planet 24, doing stuff for The Word” Charlie points out.
“I’d go into work for ideas meetings first thing Monday morning, absolutely mashed! Asleep!”. Banging his fist on the table he lets the others remember the sacrifice he made for the band.
“Back then the guy sitting in front of me was Andrew Newman, who is now the head of entertainment on Channel 4. Just so you know what I gave up for you!” He points to the others “The Mercedes, the 50k salary and I knew more about TV then he did!”
Tony was a programmer with a manager pressuring him into doing commercial projects and Roba took a year out from college for the early recording sessions. All are London born and bred with family backgrounds originating in Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt.
“The music we do could only come out of London…”, Charlie pauses to look at a girl, “and as you can see its a fantastic place.”
“Its a melting pot of cultures”, he explains. “My influences lye in hip hop, but around ’86 I got into jazz. Fiendishly! You had Brian Priestly on Radio London playing traditional jazz and then he’d be followed by Gilles Peterson who would play this crazy music. I’d go out and buy stuff like the Pharoah Sanders‘ “Black Jazz’ LP. 18 minutes of him just screaming on a sax. Crazy stuff”
He continues, “I then realised that hip hop was based around samples of rare groove. I remember being out once and Norman Jay played the break from ‘Straight Out The Jungle” and I was like woaaa what is this?”
“I went into shops and saw that these tracks were real collectors items. There was a real stigma in the early days with hip hop people been accused of only having an interest in jazz and rare groove for the samples. You’ve got to remember that it was real different back then. You’d go into shops like Soul Jazz when it was in Camden and they’d say “oh you shouldn’t be in here. You don’t respect the music and your only after the first 2 minutes”.
Attica Blues were born out of the frustration of the scene around that time and Charlie felt hindered by the lack of originality around him. Though the name is stated on record as coming from an old Archie Step release, Charlie points out that it was meant to piss the traditionalists off.
“Attica Blues is like a traditional sounding jazz name and we chose it to piss people off. Its funny now, but back then, those in the jazz scene wouldn’t play stuff like hip hop. It was only when the likes of Kenny Dope started going into shops spending large amounts that these people realised it was cool to have the hip hop guys in.”
Electronic music like Depeche Mode, Human League and anyone who embraced computer technology like Peter Gabriel and Herbie Hancock was influencing a young Tony.
“I remember seeing an edition of the South Bank Show with Peter Gabriel on it using one of the first sampling keyboards, a Fairlight. Now back then this machine was the price of a small house and I was blown away. I got into stuff that was using samplers. Artists who were using whole chunks of samples!”
Around the time artists like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were releasing their debut LPs. Hip hop acts who plundered the past for jazz and rare groove samples.
“These guys were taking elements of the jazz scene and in turn the jazz purists embraced the hip hop culture. Around the same time acts like KC Flightt and Marley Marl were sampling all the funk stuff like James Brown. It definitely was a revolutionary time.”
There are plans to have the next LP completed by Christmas and a label of their own, ‘Surplus’ is currently on standby for solo projects. With the backing and support of a new label (they insist there are no horror stories to tell) the group should reach a wider audience.
“Now we’ve got that big label push behind us to take it to a higher level”, Charlie concludes, “and there is no reason why bands like us shouldn’t be a household name”.
Listen: Attica Blues – Test. Don’t Test
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